Wednesday, December 27, 2017
It wasn’t the kind of case I ever wanted to take. But it wasn’t one I could turn down.
“She’s mine.” Katrina Briggs held out a copy of the court order. “I have legal custody. But Webb took her from school yesterday, because they didn’t get the notice or something. And I don’t know where he is. But . . .”
She was in her early thirties, with short brown hair and eyes bloodshot from crying. “I’m just so scared.”
So here I was. Standing in front of a door, with nothing but a piece of paper to protect me.
My Taser had broken a few years ago, and it had never been much help anyway. So I had my smart mouth and my wits. I was probably doomed.
I pressed the bell.
After thirty seconds, I pressed it again.
After ten seconds, the door opened—just enough for the chain behind it. “Yeah?”
I saw only a jaundiced yellow eye and a thin mustache. “Robert Webb?”
“Who the hell are you?” His voice was a low growl.
“Tom Jurgen.” I pushed a card through the door. “I’m a private detective, and I have a copy of a court order giving custody of Nikki Webb to Katrina Briggs. If she’s inside, you’re in violation of that order, and I can call the police right now. Or we can do this quietly.”
The door closed. Then it opened again.
Webb was six feet tall, with a jutting chin and thin cheeks. “You want her? Come in and take her.”
The apartment was small but tidy, except for a pizza box lying on the floor next to a pile of empty water bottles. A curtain hung over one wall, as if hiding an inappropriate poster.
A nine-year-old girl sat on the couch, clutching a stuffed elephant, staring at the TV. Spongepants Squarebob, or something like that. But she wasn’t really watching. She looked as if she just hoped we’d all go away.
She didn’t answer.
“Nikki!” Webb’s voice stomped a foot on the carpet. “Talk to him!”
“Hold on.” I pulled my phone. “I’m not trying to scare you. Just—talk to your mother for a minute, okay?” I pressed a button.
Katrina Briggs picked up. “Hello?”
“It’s me. She’s right here.” I handed the phone to Nikki. “Talk to your mother.”
“Bitch.” Webb folded his arms. “Lying, cheating—”
“Just be quiet.” I folded my arms too, trying to look like something who could take him.
I wanted to run. Most of my work is trailing cheating spouses and workers comp fakers. And, okay, the occasional vampire. It’s a living.
Nikki’s face trembled. “What? What about . . . okay.” She rubbed her nose.
A black bruise stained her cheek, just below her left eye.
Nikki stood up. “She wants to talk to you again.”
I took the phone. “I think we’re good.”
“Whatever. Just . . . bring her home.”
I slipped my phone back into a pocket. “Let’s go, Nikki. It’ll be all right.”
“You asshole.” Webb threw my card on the floor. “I’ll remember this.”
I took Nikki’s hand. “Did you do that to her? Her eye?”
“I fell.” Nikki squirmed. “I hit my face on the door. I’m just clumsy sometimes.”
Webb patted Nikki on her head. “It’s okay, kid. I’ll see you soon.”
“Okay, daddy. I love you.” But she didn’t look back as we walked to the door.
“This isn’t over.” Webb snarled before closing the door.
Katrina Briggs grabbed Nikki the minute we walked into the condo. “Oh my god. Oh my god . . .”
Nikki let her mother hug her, then pulled away. “Hi, mom.”
“What’s that?” Katrina pointed at the bruise. “Did he hurt you?”
“I hit a chair.” She looked into the living room. “Can I watch TV?’
“I’ll get you some ice cream.”
Nikki planted herself in the biggest chair and hit the remote. I followed Katrina into the kitchen.
The apartment was small but comfortable. The kitchen was tight, but it had a door that Katrina closed just enough to hear Nikki if she wanted anything.
“What happened?” Her voice was a hoarse, frightened whisper.
“There wasn’t a problem. But . . .” I hesitated. “It wasn’t a chair. Before, she said it was a door. I’m pretty sure he hit her.”
“Goddamn him.” She slammed the freezer door.
“He said it wasn’t over. He said he’d see Nikki soon.”
“Oh god.” She started scooping ice cream. “What do I do? I can’t exactly move. I have a job, I have . . . she has school. Her friends.”
This wasn’t exactly my area of expertise. But I have handled a few stalkers. “There are lots of legal protections. But in the end . . . I don’t know. If he’s dangerous—”
“You have no idea.” She shuddered.
Back home at 10:30 p.m., I looked in my refrigerator.
I had half a six-pack of beer. I’m not allowed to drink beer because of the medication I take for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I keep it for Rachel.
I opened a bottle of water and went to the dining room table to check the email on my laptop.
Two possible new cases. And a lot of spam. One email from my mother, asking whether I was coming for Thanksgiving.
Why was I waiting? I picked up my phone and called Rachel. “You home?”
“Where else would I be? How’d that child snatch work out?”
Rachel lives upstairs. She’s got red hair and hazelnut eyes, and sort of psychic powers. “I got the kid out. She’s home with her mother.”
“He hit her.” I kept seeing the bruise below Nikki’s eye.
“Oh.” Rachel paused. “Did you thrash him to within an inch of his life?”
I tried to laugh. “How long have you known me?”
“So, no.” She sighed. “What now?”
“I don’t know. Right now, the job is over. But he said it’s not finished.”
“You can’t solve every problem in the world, you know.”
“I guess.” I sipped my water. “See you tomorrow?”
“You want me to come down now?’
“No, that’s all right.” I stretched. “Thanks.”
“Always here. Except for 10:30 tomorrow, I’ve got a meeting with a client—”
Rachel hesitated. “Yeah. Same here.”
So I spent two blissful days doing boing P.I. work—background checks, fraudulent workers comp claims, tailing a cheating spouse to a seedy motel, the bread and butter of a private investigator’s job. Not very glamorous, but at least I wasn’t dealing with vampires, werewolves, or angry ghosts.
Then Katrina Briggs called me again, weeping, at 4:00 on a Wednesday afternoon. “She’s gone again! I don’t know what to do . . .”
“Okay, okay.” I’ve listened to clients sobbing, and I never know what to say. “What happened?”
“We’re at my sister’s. In Wheaton.” She gulped. “And he just showed up.”
“Have you called the police?” They could help more than I could.
“Yes, but . . . it’s more complicated than that.”
It always is. “What do you want?”
“I can’t.” She coughed. Not over the phone. Can you meet me? At my apartment.”
That beat driving down to Wheaton in rush hour traffic. “Of course. Can I bring an associate? She works with me.”
“Whatever.” Katrina sniffed. “Two hours?”
It was more like three hours, but Rachel and I met Katrina in her condo.
Katrina’s sister Meghan opened the door. She had long brown hair that matched Katrina’s short cut, and she looked us both over as if checking us out for evidence of drug use. “Who are you?”
“Tom Jurgen.” I held out a card. “And this is Rachel. She works with me.”
Meghan looked at the card. “I hope you can help.”
“Meg? Is that—” Katrina shouted from inside.
Meghan let us in and locked the door.
Katrina sat on the couch, rubbing her eyes. “Thank you for coming.”
“How much is this guy charging you?” Meghan planted her hands on her hips. “If this is some kind of scam—”
“Shut up!” Katrina pounded one fist on a cushion. “He’s the only one who can help me!”
“We’ll do what we can.” I stood next to a chair. “What happened?”
Katrina rubbed her eyes. “He was just there. Inside the house—”
“The door was locked.” Meghan glared as if everything was all my fault. “And there he was. That bastard.” She sank down onto the couch, but far from her sister. “Why you ever married him, I don’t know.”
“Not now, Meg.” Katrina grabbed at a box of tissues. “Okay?”
“Let’s focus on the facts.” I stayed standing, with Rachel next to me. Her vaguely psychic power could pick things up that I couldn’t. Which is why I wanted her here.
Plus, I like having her around.
“What happened?” I looked at Katrina, waiting.
She blew her nose. “I only hired you because your website said you do things with, uh, unusual cases?”
“That’s right.” Oh hell. Was Webb a vampire? Or something else? “I’ve handled all sorts of problems that most people wouldn’t believe.”
Meghan snorted. “Get ready.”
Katrina shot a glare at her sister. Then she sat up, straightened her shoulders, and looked at me. “The thing is? I married a demon.”
Meghan poured wine for her sister and Rachel. I stuck to tap water.
“He was human when I met him.” Katrina wiped a hand over her eyes. “Then after a few years he told me the truth—he was born in a demon realm, but his mother brought him here and raised him as a human. And he was fine.”
Meghan snorted. “I always thought there was something off about him.”
“Shut up.” Katrina gulped her wine. “Everything was fine. Six years. We got married, I got pregnant, Nikki was born . . . everything was still fine until about two years ago. Then one day he just . . . disappeared. For a month. He left a letter—here, I can show it to you—” She started to stand up.
“In a minute.” I wanted her story. “What happened then?”
“He said he had to—go home for a while.” Katrina settled back on the sofa. “When he came back, everything was fine. I thought.” She sank into the sofa, as if trying to hide. “But after a few days he was different. I tried to ignore it. I tried to help him. But every once in a while he’d . . . change.”
Rachel was sitting now. “Change how?”
Katrina rubbed her forehead. “He had—horns?”
Oh god, Rachel breathed. Only I could hear her. But I knew what she meant.
She’d never told me all the details, but I knew one time she’d met a demon. Out on a lake somewhere. Something tall and powerful, with horns. Strong and seductive and . . . tempting.
I stood next to Rachel’s chair and put a hand on her shoulder. She elbowed me in the ribs. Ow. “Can you show me the letter?”
Katrina pointed. “Meg? It’s in the bedroom. In the drawer next to my bed. I just can’t . . .” She grabbed for some tissues on the table next to her.
Exasperated, Meghan stood up and went to the bedroom. Katrina leaned forward.
“The thing is . . . ” She whispered. “It was good for a while. So good. Then . . .” She shook her head. “Then it got bad.”
Meghan came back. “Is this it?”
I’ll come back. But I have to go. I can’t stay away forever. I thought I could. But I’ll come back for you. And then we’ll all be together.
“He came back, like I said, and it was . . . okay for a while.” She gulped more wine. “But then, like I said—he changed. He hit me, more than once, accused me of cheating on him. Then he . . .” She closed her eyes. “Hit Nikki. I had to leave. And I took Nikki.”
“Asshole.” Meghan folded her arms.
Katrina groaned. “All right, all right! Am I the only one here who’s made a mistake?”
“Peter was different!” Meghan kicked at the sofa. “Just because he was—”
“Hello?” I held up a hand. The last thing I wanted was to listen to family drama. Especially if this was leading the way I thought. “Where is Webb now?”
Katrina shrugged. “Probably back in . . . wherever he was born.”
“How does he get there?”
Rachel looked up at me. “Oh, no.”
“One thing at a time.” But I stepped clear of her elbow.
“He can open a, a portal.” She sketched a circle in the air. “But he didn’t do it at Meghan’s house.”
“No.” Meghan glared. “He just took Nikki and left. In a car.”
“But he was in—you know, demon mode.” She mimed horns rising up from her skull. “Nikki was screaming . . .”
“I was screaming.” Her sister shuddered.
I would have too. “Okay.” I took a deep breath. “So he can’t create a portal out of nowhere, probably. Which means he may have one open somewhere.” And I thought I knew where.
I parked my Honda in front of Webb’s apartment complex and paid the full amount on the meter, planting the ticket inside the car’s windshield. If we stayed longer longer . . . I just hoped Katrina would pay the towing fee.
Webb’s landlord was happy to let us into the apartment before we could call the police to look into a possible child abduction. He even stayed out in the hallway.
The apartment was empty. The curtain on the wall was think purple velvet. I pulled it open.
A hole in the wall shimmered with every color of the spectrum, including a few I’d never seen before. It pulsed like a living thing, as if breathing in and out, and I could smell rank, fetid air drifting into the room.
Katrina moaned. “Oh god, oh god . . .”
Meghan glared at me. “Now what?”
I looked at Rachel.
She shrugged off her backpack.
We’d argued—briefly—on the way back to our building before meeting Katrina and Meghan here. Briefly, because we’d had the argument before. We’d stopped off to get supplies.
My Taser was broken, but Rachel handed me a stun gun—the kind you jab against someone’s arm for a shock. She also gave me a small canister of pepper spray. She buys it in bulk—“I’m a girl in Chicago, right?”
I’d considered bring the Japanese Army sword my father had given me, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to practice fencing for the first time against a demon. The only time I’d used it was to kill a sleeping dragon.
“I’m coming with you.” Katrina gazed at the portal.
Meghan rolled her eyes. “Me too, I guess.”
What the hell? “Wait a minute—”
“She’s my daughter!” Her face was red.
“And I’m her sister.” Meghan clutched Katrina’s hand for a moment.
I looked at Rachel.
She lifted a fist. “So help me, if you say anything like, ‘Women . . .’ I’m going to punch you into another dimension without going through a portal.”
I lifted both hands. “Fine. Fine.”
She handed out more pepper spray. “I’ve got flashlights, water bottles and granola bars. Also sweaters. And a change of underwear, but that’s just for me. Hopefully we won’t be there that long.”
Katrina pocketed her spray and patted the leather purse slung over her shoulder. “I’ve got my own. But thanks.”
“Yeah.” Meghan looked at the spray. “Does this really stop demons?”
“I don’t know.” She zipped the backpack up. “Worse comes to worst, I’ll kick it in the balls. That worked one time.”
I raised an eyebrow.
Rachel sighed. “I’ll tell you later.”
My mouth was dry, but I didn’t want to ask for a water bottle right now. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
“Everything okay in there?” The landlord peeked through the door. “Whoa—what’s that?” He stared at the swirling portal.
“Modern art. Who knows?” I managed a casual shrug. “We’re fine. We’ll let you know when we’re finished.”
He was skeptical, but he didn’t want to stay. “Just don’t go trashing the place.”
“Not at all.” I glanced around and saw a landline phone. “We’re just waiting for a call.”
The landlord closed the door.
Katrina squeezed her sister’s hand. “You don’t have to do this, Meg. Nikki’s my daughter.”
“Of c-course I do.” She pulled her hand away. “She’s my niece.”
Great. I looked at Rachel. “Can I at least go through first?”
She sighed. “Men.”
Stepping into the portal felt like dropping into an icy ocean without any bottom. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t feel any part of my body. I closed my eyes, hoping I hadn’t just jumped into a bottomless pit.
Then I fell onto hard ground, gasping for air. I rolled over, shivering, and sat up as my heart pounded.
A demon with five horns growled at me.
“What are you doing here?” His skin was green, and he wore a loose shirt and tight jeans.
I blinked. My knee hurt from the fall. “Uh, nothing.”
He shook his head with menace. “You’re human.”
“Yeah.” I glanced over my shoulder, looking for the portal. “I can explain—”
Then Rachel came through.
I twisted before she fell on top of me, and pulled her out of the way before Katrina dropped down. Rachel coughed and punched me. “Are you okay?”
The demon snarled. “She’s human, too.”
Rachel looked up. “Who’s your friend?”
I struggled to my feet, helping Rachel. “This is, uh, I didn’t get your name?”
“Humans aren’t meant to be here.” The demon stepped forward, claws jutting from his forearms. “I’m Argunn.”
Katrina stumbled through the portal and fell, and then Meghan fell right on top of her. The two of them thrashed together on the packed earth. “Ow! Goddamn it! What are you—” They disentangled each other with Rachel’s help
I turned back to the demon. “Tom Jurgen. And this is Rachel.”
Argunn’s yellow eyes burned. “How many more are you?”
“This is it.” Unless there were more portals linked to this one.
“I’m looking for my daughter.” Katrina hadn’t entirely caught her breath. Meghan was helping her stand. But she was determined, even though her legs shook from the trip through the portal. “She’s with a man—a demon—named Webb.”
Argunn’s growl sounded like a suspicious pit bull. “It’s not safe here for humans.”
I staggered in a circle, trying to get some bearings. The portal glowed in a cliff face next to us, the sheer slope rising a hundred feet over our heads, topped by a rocky boulder perched on the precipice.
The ground was covered with thin black grass. Overhead the sky was dark, with scattered stars and occasional flashes of electricity.
A clutch of trees stood around us. The air smelled like a burning forest. The wind blew leaves with jagged edges from their branches. One leaf stung my cheek and jabbed my hand as I brushed it away. A stream from somewhere deep in the mountain flowed a dozen yards away.
I’d gone into another dimension once. But never into a demon realm. This was going to be different.
I took a deep breath. “Like she said, we’re looking for Webb.” Then I patted my pocket and felt my stun gun. I had to ask: “Are you going to try to stop us?”
His lips pulled back, revealing long double rows of sharp teeth. “You think I can’t?”
Some days I wished I’d taken my mother’s advice and become an accountant. “Let’s just say . . . you don’t want to get Rachel mad.”
“Jerk.” Rachel punched me. But she laughed under her breath.
“I’m not leaving without her.” Katrina stood up straight.
“And she fights dirty.” Meghan stood next to her. “I’m her sister. I know.”
She clenched her fists, but glanced at Meghan. “It was just that one time. We were nine.”
“And I’m still limping. And you stole my GI Joe and cut his—”
“Shut up!” Argunn roared. I could smell his breath—like charcoal mixed with bad weed. “I don’t care! I’m just trying to tell you—”
“Where is Webb?” Katrina lurched forward. “Do you know? Tell me!”
The demon backed up. “Follow the river. That way. Two kilometers. Then go east. He’s there. Then leave.”
“Okay.” I looked up at the sky. “Which way is east?”
I felt like Frodo leading the fellowship toward Mordor. Rachel walked beside me as we followed the water.
I caught glimpses of animals skittering in the bushes—and flying up in the trees. Once I thought I saw a small dinosaur circling in the dark sky. A snakelike creature slithered through the grass near my feet, then disappeared before I could jump back.
Soon the stream widened into a river. After a few hours we had to stop for rest. Katrina didn’t want to wait, but Meghan was exhausted.
We sank to the rough ground to rest.
Rachel crouched next to the river and ran her hand in the water. She licked her fingers. “Tastes all right.”
Her hazelnut eyes looked hazy, as if she was sleepy or high. I felt lightheaded myself. Meghan was almost asleep. Maybe this dimension was affecting us. Something in the atmosphere—or the world itself?
I’d traveled to another dimension years ago—one where humans from our world got sick over time. It wasn’t inhabited by demons, but it still wasn’t anyplace for a long-term vacation. I hoped we had enough time to find what we were looking for.
Katrina struggled to her feet. “Come on.”
She staggered forward. Rachel took the rear, helping Meghan keep up.
Lights flickered in the trees. I waved a hand in front of my eyes. Fireflies? I stopped.
The trees swung back and forth in the cold breeze, shaking more sharp-edged leaves down over our heads and shoulders.
Then a demon stepped out of the darkness.
This one was female. Seven feet tall, no horns, just vines that seemed to grow from her scalp like Medusa’s snakes. Her feet were bare, with short claws sprouting from her toes and heels, and she wore a short leather skirt and a vest made out of leaves, and she carried a long thick branch in her hand.
“Humans.” She smirked. “I haven’t seen your sort in a long time. What are you doing here?”
Katrina pushed me aside. “I’m here for my daughter!”
I wanted to pull her back. But Rachel put a hand on my arm. “Let her talk.”
No mansplaining. I got it. But I kept a hand near my pocket to grab the stun gun if things got weird.
“Who are you?” The demon looked us over. “What do you want?”
“Her name is Nikki.” Katrina wobbled on the earth. “Her father is—Webb. Where is she?”
The demon woman smiled. “I’m—you can call me Desi. That’s not my name, but we never give out our names. Webb? That sounds like . . .”
She stiffened and turned around, as if hearing a call in the distance. “Okay. What will you give me? If I take you to him?”
“Anything.” Katrina nodded. “Whatever you want.”
“Kat!” Meghan darted forward. “Don’t say that. You don’t know—”
Her sister pushed her away. “Shut up! If this is the only way—”
“She’s right.” Rachel stepped between Katrina and the demon. “You don’t want to make any deals you can’t keep. Not even for Nikki.”
“Goddamn it!” She stomped a foot on the hard ground. “I want my daughter!”
Desi laughed. “You’re in our world now. You want something? Be ready to make a deal.”
She turned on a clawed heel. “I’ll take you to . . . Webb. But you’ll owe me.”
This was turning out all wrong.
We followed Desi through the forest.
Rachel slugged my arm. “Stop looking at her ass.”
“I wasn’t—” Okay, maybe I was. Desi wore a short skirt, and I’m a guy.
Meghan collapsed, begging for rest. Desi laughed, leaning on her staff. “This is no place for humans.”
“Give her a few minutes.” I knelt down and handed her a water bottle. “You okay?”
Meghan forced herself to stand. “Kat? I love you, but . . . this is crazy.”
“I’m sorry, Meg.” But she didn’t look back. “I have to find Nikki.”
“Okay.” Meghan stood up, panting. “I’m good.”
A gray stone cottage sat next to a small pond. Red flowers grew in rows next to the door—the first real color we’d seen in this land. A young woman sat in front of the door, peeling some kind of yellow fruit. She wore leggings and a long shirt that reached down to her knees. She threw the rind into one wooden bucket between her feet, and the fruit onto a wide dish next to her.
Her feet were clawed. Her scalp was almost bare, and a single small horn jutted from the back of her skull.
She looked up as we approached. “Dad? There’s humans here!”
Katrina staggered back. Meghan caught her arm.
“Nikki . . .” she whispered. “Nikki?”
A wooden door swung open, and Webb stepped out.
He had the same jutting chin and thin cheeks, but now he had two short horns in his forehead and claws on his fingers. He ran his eyes over us. “Hello, Kat. Meg.”
“They were looking for you.” Desi smiled.
Webb frowned. “You didn’t make any deals, did you?”
“She said ‘anything.’” She poked Katrina’s shoulder. “Didn’t you?”
Katrina said nothing now.
“Nikki, go inside.” Webb held the door.
But Nikki stayed still. “Mom?”
Katrina walked forward as Desi watched and smirked. “It’s you.”
She leaned down and grabbed her daughter in a tight hug. After a moment, Nikki reached her arms around her mother’s waist, looking up at her face.
“What happened?” Meghan stared at the child, then glanced at me.
“Time moves differently in different dimensions.” I’d seen it happen before. “We could go back and find out that only a second passed.” I hoped it didn’t work the other way around. I didn’t want to get back and find out years had gone by. My apartment, my car, my business . . . my mother.
“Leave us alone, Desi.” Webb put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder, pulling her away from Katrina. “We’ll talk later.”
“Yes. We will.” She shot a look at Katrina. “Remember what you said.”
Desi’s smile made me uncomfortable as she turned toward the trees.
Webb growled. “Inside.”
“My mother took me to the human realm when I was less than one year old. I adapted. I thought.”
We were inside Webb’s house, in a comfortable if primitive living room that looked as if Little House on the Prairie had starred the Flintstones. A hardwood floor with a rug that looked as if it had been skinned from a giant snow tiger, a table made of stone, and chairs built from wood and some kind of bone. I didn’t want to think about what kind.
We drank water out of stone cups served by Nikki.
“My father started eating her skin, one strip at a time.” He might have been talking about random affairs or cheating on taxes. “He stopped when I was born, but then he started up again. She found a portal and left.”
“Found one or made it?” I wasn’t sure how these things worked. Rachel poked me. “What? I ask questions. It’s my job.”
Webb scowled. “A wizard taught her how to open portals in exchange for some flesh.” Again, as if flaying people alive was economics 101 here. “So we came to your world . . . but she didn’t make the transition very well.” His yellow eyes darkened. “She had to come back here sometimes. Otherwise the stress of acting human all the time made her . . . revert.” He slammed his fist on the table. The water in our cups shook. “Get violent. Lash out. It’s what happened to me.” He nodded at Katrina.
“What about humans who come here?” I braved myself for another jab.
“They get sick. Sometimes they adapt.” He looked at Nikki. “She’s half demon, so she was sick for a while. After a few months she—became who she is now.”
Nikki sat on the floor, impatient and bored.
“But that’ll change when she goes back home, right?” Katrina was sitting forward on her bony chair.
Webb’s yellow eyes flared. “Never. This is her home now.”
“But she was born with us! Her home is—”
“Stop it!” Nikki stood up and stomped a foot on the floor. “I’m staying here.”
Katrina’s face went pale. For a moment I thought she might faint. But she grabbed the arm of her chair and held herself up. Meghan handed her a cup of water. She gulped it, gasping, and ran a hand over her forehead, tears dripping from her eyes.
Then she sat back and gazed at her daughter. “N-Nikki? What happened?”
“Look at me!” She bent down and lowered her head, sticking the horn in her skull into the air. “At this! It’s who I am now!”
“But you’ll change back. Won’t she?” Katrina shot a look at Webb. “You’re not—like that when you come back. She’ll—”
“So what?” Nikki kicked an empty chair. “Am I going to go back to third grade again? I’m older! Look at me! I like it here! I have friends!”
Meghan snorted. “Like Desi? And Argunn?”
“Like my dad!” She stopped and planted her feet wide apart, crossing her arms. “He protects me.”
“From demons who want to eat your skin?” Katrina lurched to her feet, glaring at Webb. “Do you let them do that? Or do you eat her skin too?”
“Shut up, bitch!” Webb stalked toward her. “Your piece of paper isn’t worth anything here! You’re in my world—”
Katrina slapped his face.
“Mom!” Nikki screamed.
Webb reached out and grabbed her neck, pulling her close to his face. I saw long fangs between his jaws.
I grabbed at my pocket and jumped forward with the stun gun, pushing the electrodes into Webb’s arm.
Webb howled and swung an arm that hit my face like a sledgehammer. I staggered back, trying not to shriek in pain, and Rachel popped her pepper spray and squirted a long dose into his face.
She managed to jump back before Webb could shift around to hit her. Nikki kicked me in the knee.
Meghan pulled at her sister’s shoulders. “Goddamn it, Kat, you can’t—”
“STOP IT!” Nikki’s scream stabbed my eardrums—and shook the stone floor of the house.
Only Nikki was standing. Katrina was on top of her sister, squirming, trying to get back up and fight. Webb lay flat on his back, gasping for breath after the stab of Rachel’s pepper spray. Rachel rolled over and crawled to me, panting.
“You okay?” I tried to sit up. Failed. So I sank back down, trying to catch my breath, searching for the stun gun on the floor with my hand.
“Idiot.” She pressed the weapon into my palm. “Hang onto this next time.”
I managed to sit up. “Can everyone just calm down?”
Webb snarled. “I’m going to kill all of you! And eat your skin. Raw, while you’re still screaming—”
“Dad!” Nikki knelt next to her father. “No! You can’t!”
Webb raised an arm. “Shut up, you—”
Katrina pushed Nikki away before Webb could hit her. “Don’t you dare!”
Somehow Rachel got to her feet, grunting, and pulled Nikki back, her arms around her waist. They both fell, Nikki on top, and rolled away.
Katrina was on her knees, sobbing. “Webb, don’t! Please? You don’t have to be like this!”
“Dad!” Nikki escaped Rachel’s arms and planted her feet between Webb and her mother. “Stop!”
The door behind us opened with a bang.
Desi. With two more demons behind her.
“There’s flesh here.” Desi walked into the house. “Lots of it.” She licked her lips. “And this one made me a deal.”
The two demons with her were at least seven feet tall. I couldn’t count the number of horns on their heads.
Webb reared up. “Out!” His voice was a roar. “My house! Get out!”
I held my stun gun up. I wasn’t sure if Desi knew what it could do, but it was all I had.
“Let’s all just calm down and take a breath.” I followed my own suggestion with a deep gulp of air as my heart pounded behind my ribs.
Rachel moved to my side. “Now what?”
Webb growled as he got to his feet. “I will not let you eat any skin here. If we have to fight, I’ll eat yours.” He licked his lips. “I’m sure it’ll taste juicy. Especially the good parts.”
The good parts? Yuck.
“She made a deal.” The snakes on Desi’s head squirmed. “Anything. That’s what she said.”
Webb lifted his claws. “She’s the mother of my child. Only I have claim to her skin. And if I don’t eat it, no one does.”
“And they say romance is dead,” I whispered. Rachel jabbed my ribs.
But Katrina looked over her shoulder at her ex-husband with something like relief. “Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
“For Nikki.” His nod held menace. “Not for you.”
Desi laughed. “Okay. We’ll leave your home. But we’ll be waiting outside.”
She and her two demons left, slamming the door behind them.
Meghan slapped her sister’s arm. “I told you not to say that!”
“I had to find Nikki!” She dropped to her knees again, sobbing. “You don’t understand, you’ll never . . .”
“Don’t cry, mom.” Nikki put a hand on her mother’s shoulder. “You can’t cry. It makes you weak.”
“What?” She looked up. “Is that what he taught you?”
“You can’t be weak.” Nikki’s horn rose behind her head. “It’s the only way to survive.”
Katrina slapped her hand. “Get away from me!”
Nikki stumbled back, confused. “I just said—”
She jabbed a finger at Webb. “You did this to her! You made her this way!”
“I taught her to be strong.” Webb smiled at his daughter. “And she’s learned.”
“You asshole! What have you done to her?” Katrina staggered, trying to stay upright. “If you’ve hurt her, I will—”
“Kat.” Meghan put a hand on her arm. “We’ve got bigger problems.”
Yeah. I lifted a hand. “You guys have to work out your custody issues without any lawyers, which is fine with me no matter what happens.” I didn’t really think leaving Nikki in a demon realm where people ate skin was best for her, but maybe it was better than some neighborhoods in Chicago. “The real question is, how do we get back to the portal with Desi and her goons out there?”
Webb stalked to the window, leaned down, and peered out. “I can protect you.”
Meghan shook her head. “I don’t know. Those two guys with her were pretty big.”
“They’re stupid.” He wheeled around. “They’re her latest. She keeps two around between mating seasons. Then she eats them, ruts with a champion, and chooses two more to keep her . . . satisfied for two years. So she has to pick dumb.”
“Oh . . . my . . . god.” Katrina’s eyes widened on her daughter. Then she leaned over, gasping, and vomited on Webb’s carpet.
Meghan put a hand on her sister’s shoulder. But she stared at Webb with enough hate in her eyes to make me nervous. “This place is where you want your daughter to grow up? There’s nothing normal about this—”
“My mother died because she lived in a human realm.” Webb clenched his jaw. “We can’t live in both worlds. It has to be one or the other.”
“So you want Nikki to grow up in a world like this? Is she going to eat skin and wait every two years to rut with a, a champion? Didn’t you figure anything out when you lived as a human?”
“That I can’t live as a human!” He lifted his arms. “Look at me! This is what I am! This place is where I have to live—if I want to live.”
“But Nikki . . .” Katrina coughed. “She was born at home. She doesn’t have to live like this.”
“I’ve seen it all, mom.” Nikki stood in a corner. Not frightened, but uncertain. She clutched at her horn. “The rutting, the skin eating, everything. It’s how we live here.”
Katrina wiped an arm over her mouth. “I’m sorry.” She stood up again, with Meghan’s help. Then she closed her eyes, as if she couldn’t look at her daughter while she asked the question: “Do you really want to stay here?”
Webb turned away—as if he didn’t want to hear her answer either.
Nikki shook her head. “No.”
Katrina rubbed her eyes. “Are you sure?”
Nikki tapped a clawed heel on the floor uncertainly. Then she walked slowly to her father. “I’m sorry, dad.”
I wondered what I could do if he lashed out at her. But Webb only lowered his head. “Go.”
Rachel glanced over her shoulder at the window. “That leaves us with the first question—how do we get back to the portal?”
I grinned. “Maybe we don’t have to.”
She blinked. “Oh. Right.”
“Webb?” I was nervous talking to him, but this was our only good option unless we wanted to fight our way past three skin-hungry demons. “You know how to open a portal, don’t you?”
After a long moment, he nodded. “Yes.”
“Will you do it for us? Please?”
A longer moment. “If I’m allowed to see Nikki. A day or two, once every month or so. It’s . . . about as long as I can stand it.”
Katrina nodded. “All right. As long as . . .”
Her words echoed off the walls.
Still without looking at us, Webb lowered his head. “I am . . . sorry I hurt you, Kat. I won’t hurt Nikki. Again. Ever.”
Nikki took her father’s hand. “I’m sorry, dad.”
He squeezed her arm. “It’s better. This is a hard world.”
“I’ll be strong.”
He stroked her horn. “I know.”
Finally he turned to us. “This will take a few minutes. And it may not come out in the same place.”
“As long as it’s close.” I looked at Rachel. “And not 30 feet in the air.”
He held a hand out to Katrina. “Give me something that belongs to you. I can use it as an anchor to your home.”
She dug into her jeans and pulled out her keys. “Thank you.”
A rock crashed through the window. I jumped. Rachel whirled, yanking her pepper spray again.
From outside Desi’s voice murmured, “I’m waiting!”
I looked at Webb. “Hurry.”
Rachel and I argued, but she went through before me. I took one last look at Webb. I was the last. “Thanks again.”
He snarled. “I never want to see you again. Go.”
The feeling was mutual, but I didn’t say that. Instead I stepped through the portal of swirling colors—
—and fell through a cold sea of nothingness until I hit the hardwood floor of Katrina’s condo.
Rachel helped me get up. Meghan offered me a bottle of water, and I drank half of it down in one gulp.
Katrina was in a chair, and Nikki slumped on a couch, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Already the horn in the back of her head looked smaller. She sipped a box of apple juice.
“You okay?” Rachel patted my shoulder.
“F-fine.” I shivered, then finished the water.
Meghan looked at her niece. “You hungry, Nikki?”
“Yeah.” She set the juice box down. “Could I have . . .” She paused, as if trying to remember what she could eat here. “Are there cookies?”
“In the kitchen.” Katrina looked at her daughter as if she didn’t want to let her out of her sight. “Meg?”
“Sure.” She headed off.
I looked at Rachel. “We should be going.”
She nodded. “Right.”
“Thank you.” Katrina stood up on wobbling legs. “I didn’t think . . . it would turn out like this.”
I shrugged. “You never know.”
She reached out to shake my hand, and Rachel’s. “Send me your bill.”
“He will,” Rachel promised.
I looked at Nikki on the couch. “Good night, Nikki. Good luck.”
Nikki nodded without looking at me. “Thanks.”
Out in the hallway Rachel slugged me. “Now I see why you stay away from child custody cases.”
“Yeah.” I patted the stun gun back in my pocket. “Thanks for helping out there.”
“Only I get to hit you.” And she punched my arm. Gently.
“What about Nikki? Is she going to be okay?”
She closed her eyes for a moment. “Maybe. She’s . . . torn. But who wouldn’t be? I was—I mean, you know.”
“Yeah.” Rachel’s parents had gotten divorced. At least neither one of them had been demons. “Let’s go home.”
“Right.” We walked toward the elevator. “As soon as we get a cab to find my car.”